aking good food choices is one of the most
important things we can do for the health
of our hearts. We know we should be eating
plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole
grains while limiting sodium, salt, saturated
fat and avoiding trans fats. Even so, many
of us find ourselves looking for comfort from food. After
a bad day at work, we drown our stress in ice cream or
squash our frustration with pizza, only to remain stressed
and even feel a little guilty afterward. Some call it “stress
eating” or “emotional eating.” But what is emotional
eating, and how can it be managed to avoid harmful heart
According to Mark Gorman, a staff psychologist at the
Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center, emotional
eating happens “when someone doesn’t like the emotions
they’re feeling — they feel really stressed, for example —
and in order to cope with that stress, they eat because eating
makes them feel better.”
Simply put, emotional eating is a coping mechanism.
With emotional eating, people often tell Gorman that there is
relief in the moment — whether they feel better or numb —
from whatever negative emotion they are experiencing, such
as guilt or distress.
Emotional eating is not considered a true eating disorder,
according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders (DSM- 5), the standard classification of mental
disorders used by mental health professionals in the United
States. Anorexia (food restriction) and bulimia (binging
and purging) are well-known eating disorders; binge eating
has also been added to the DSM- 5. These eating disorders,
however, are behavioral patterns that have distinct criteria,
including a level of distress, impairment in functioning and
frequency of repeating a behavior. At this time, emotional
eating does not have a set criteria or set of symptoms to
distinguish it as a diagnosable eating disorder.
To receive a binge eating diagnosis, for example, the
American Psychiatric Association website states:
Binge eating disorder involves frequent overeating
during a discreet period of time (at least once a week for
three months), combined with lack of control and associated
with three or more of the following:
• Eating more rapidly than normal
• Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
• Eating large amounts of food when not feeling
• Eating alone because of feeling
embarrassed by how much one
• Feeling disgusted with oneself,
depressed or very guilty afterward
Binge Eating Disorder also causes
A person who is eating in response to emotions, however,
may very well have a sense of control but chooses to use
food as a way to numb, cope or pacify a feeling. “An
emotional eater might say, ‘Yes, I ate a whole cheese pizza
by myself, but that was a choice I made and at no point did
I feel like I couldn’t stop myself. I was in control the whole
time.’ That’s different than a clinical diagnosis of binge
eating,” Gorman said.
Despite some similarities, emotional eating is not
necessarily a symptom of an eating disorder. It might more
accurately be thought of as a behavioral response to negative
emotions, just as a person might scream in response to anger
or go on a run in response to frustration.
It may also be a response to a positive stimulus as well,
eating too much cake at a wedding or ordering a large
steak dinner as a way to celebrate a promotion. Enjoying
MINDFUL EATING . . . . . . . . . . . .
Paying attention to what and how you eat can change your
relationship to food. Follow the tips from the Mayo Clinic
below to practice mindful eating.
• Take a few seconds to look at the food on your plate. Look
at it, smell it, and be thankful for it.
• Notice how hungry you are before you eat. Make sure you
are eating because you are hungry, not because you are
bored or upset.
• Avoid distractions. Turn off the television and put away your
phone. Focus only on the ritual of eating.
• Pay close attention to each bite. Concentrate on the feel
of the food in your mouth and the taste of the food on your
• Eat slowly and take small bites. Chew your food completely
before swallowing. By giving your body time to focus on the
food, you are more likely to recognize when you are full.
Source: Mayo Clinic
Dr. Mark Gorman